Through the use of a specific yeast and cells held in liquid, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed in a paper last week that their device could manufacture a single dose of biopharmaceuticals for doctors in remote areas or battlefields to administer to patients in need.

MIT Develops Single Dose Biopharm Machine
Image courtesy of MIT

New study shows move away from mass biopharmaceutical production

The paper in question was published on Friday and showed that the machine developed by the MIT scientists could move from biopharmaceutical manufacturing at a grand-fermentation scale to single doses.

“Currently, manufacturing of biologic drugs in the biopharmaceutical industry relies heavily on large-scale fermentation batches that are frequently monitored offline, to ensure a robust process and consistent quality of product,” the study read.

Senior author Timothy K. Lu, head of the Synthetic Biology Group at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, penned a release that explained where such a portable device could be invaluable.

“Imagine you were on Mars or in a remote desert, without access to a full formulary, you could program the yeast to produce drugs on demand locally,” Lu said.

Additionally, a device such as the one they developed could be deployed to a small village to produce vaccines and stop a potential outbreak or even epidemic in its tracks.

The use of this device will not come cheap, certainly not immediately, but putting the breaks on a deadly disease that could wipe out a village is noble at any cost as is its use on the battlefield.

The machine’s foundation lies in Pichia pastoris, a programmable yeast the researchers exposed to a specific type of estrogen.

“If you could engineer a single strain, or maybe even a consortia of strains that grow together, to manufacture combinations of biologics or antibodies, that could be a very powerful way of producing these drugs at a reasonable cost,” Lu explained.

Luke P. Lee, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved in the study, stated clearly that he was impressed by the work put forward in the paper.

“It is a pragmatic solution for biomanufacturing, and the team’s flexible and portable platform shows an authentic way of producing personalized therapeutics,” said Lee.

DARPA funded the MIT Researchers

DARPA funds and develops all sorts of stuff that could potential help the military but has also been put into civilian use. I say “stuff” because we’re talking about the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which once funded a project where soldiers were trained to kill goats simply by starting at them.

Frankly, we will never be made aware of the bulk of DARPA’s successes nor failures as this group thinks well outside the box, if there is even a box in the picture. In addition to its own employees the agency encourages civilians to, for example, weaponize common items around the house as it did earlier this year with the promise of a cash prize and possibly a job.

MIT remains a stalwart in producing things that I struggle with writing while also recognizing that the world we live in will be nearly unrecognizable in a decade and that world will enjoy even more incredible advances on the same technologies just five years later than that.

Advances like this make Mars look doable in 2030, not the 2030s.